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Observations: Speculating Faith

In the interest of a prelude, before Christmas I wrote a piece called Inherently Religious, in which I argued that some events and symbolism are by nature religious, and, therefore, they cannot properly be used in any other way – […]

In the interest of a prelude, before Christmas I wrote a piece called Inherently Religious, in which I argued that some events and symbolism are by nature religious, and, therefore, they cannot properly be used in any other way – thus, to secularize Christmas is to make Christmas not exist. In its place we have the deification of Saint Nick – poor god as he may be.

I offer that entry as something as a reference point so this one won’t seem totally off the wall.  For those who don’t know or remember, I’m a late-comer to this entire genre. It’s become something of a comfort to me, because the speculative genre allows me to stand in the doorway between the spirit world and the flesh world and peer at both, lift the veil and gaze in wonder at the greater reality that surpasses our mortal senses. That’s the draw, for me. Not so much aliens or elves as much as making tangible that which is intangible–that which is no less real but just beyond my ability to hear, see, touch, and taste.

Striking, really.

So I find it a little odd when I see the speculative crowd getting hammered…for speculating. Maybe I’m an overeager audience, or simply undaunted by halftruths in fiction, or care more about the treatment of a concept than the concept itself, but I can’t help but wonder: Shouldn’t our genre, the speculative genre, be the safest place in the world to explore every possible “what if”?

What-if games are dangerous, to be certain. It’s a fine line between exploring the thing that isn’t and promoting it. But of all people, spec-fic  writers should be unafraid to treat the dangerous questions.

For instance, I really don’t think people really realize how good we’ve got it, how much worse things could be. The guy who asks “How could a good God let X happen?” clearly doesn’t understand the nature and character of God.  And in this culture of illustrations and visual learning, it may behoove us to  engage the ramifications of such a question. How different would the world look if God were malicious? What would he be like? What would life on earth be like? Or what if he weren’t completely sovereign; or what if he were a tyrant? What if he didn’t know the future?

What if he carelessly left us to our own devices, the whole lot of this human race? (Amplify Bruce Almighty by about 6 billion and that might be a start.)

What if.

They wouldn’t be pretty books, that’s for certain.  Yes, I very much prefer God’s character drawn as accurately as possible or left off the table. But what I’m suggesting is that  part of being made in the image of God is that we still have something of his thumb print left on our souls.

As a result, unless our consciences are seared, something in us recoils against injustice and oppression–even if we only recognize it when we’re the victims.  And either we reject it or embrace it as a weapon to dominate.

I can’t help but think that a dark world with a cruel god would be a morbid one indeed. Truly Heaven would have become Hell.

Like I said, my former entry contains the frame of reference. In it, I surmised that Santa was, in effect, the “god” of various Christmas movies.  (For those who didn’t like my poke at Elf – please note that really does mean we should all strive to be Buddy: A true man of faith  and  an evangelist who comes back with converts. Of course, it also means that the Naughty List is the equivalent of Hellfire and Damnation. ) A deistic, karma-based religion, but hey.  Flip it around and you’ve got a very real idea of what the world would be like if God were little more than something out of someone’s pantheon  and in the end it was up to us to get back in his good graces. On the Nice List.

Makes me think of a song a friend of mine wrote:

Good people

Die every day

Some did not

Find their way

So close

And yet so far

So close

But no cigar

Went to church

All the time

Never did

Commit a crime

Had no time

To kneel and pray

Put it off

For another day

Another day may never come do not count on your good deeds

Because no one is perfect and no one is worthy

Do not think that you can slip on by

Let me tell you the reason why

Hell is for good people just like me

My sin nailed God’s son upon the tree

Hell is for good people just like you

And all who said one thing untrue

Helped people

All the time

Gave money

To the blind

Went to church

Twice a year

You said you listened

But did you hear?

For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son

He hung upon the cross and bled for all your sins / every one

He rose again on the third day

So that you might; you might be saved … because

Hell is for good people….

[Hell is For Good People © 2005 Midiboy Music

Music / Lyrics: Gregg Hart]

Speculate what God is not, in other words.  Imagine the world as it isn’t.

I think on some level there has to be some separation between what the author believes and what the characters believe. I don’t, for instance, believe that if I don’t pray every three hours God will kick me out of heaven. I have a character who does, though. I don’t believe we lose our salvation, but I have a character who is convinced that if he commits one sin he’s out – forever. And that belief is never challenged. I’m sure someone will point out to me that that isn’t true. I suppose I should set up a canned response that says, “I know.” 0=)

It’s just a thought. I know many who won’t write certain things because they’re worried about promoting heresy, but I think unless those things are adequately explored, people are less likely to understand why those things are false.

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Morgan Busse
Member

I think there is definitely a latitude for exploring those questions. However, there is a line where exploring what the world would be like if God were malicious without ever differentiating that this malicious God is not the real God (I believe that particular theme is explored in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials). In the end, our meaning needs to be clear to the reader. The real God isn’t like that. I believe somewhere in our stories there should be truth. Or else we can run the risk of confusing our readers.

Zoe
Guest

Yeah, but Pullman’s goal in life is to destroy the Catholic Church and theism in general, and he’s not shy about saying so. He wrote Dark Materials to be an antithesis to the Chronicles of Narnia, which he hates, and he’s not shy about saying that either. I think there’s a world of difference between an atheist trying to attack the Church, Christianity, and faith, and a Christian exploring beliefs they know aren’t true in order to understand better what -is- true. Anyway, as I said to Kaci elsewhere, I think a clever storyteller can show a belief or way of life to be false (or at least worthless) without overtly attacking or dismantling it in the story. Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Great column, Kaci — it was the first thing I read this morning!

Indeed, Morgan, and I think this is one of the parameters Christians should follow as they are exploring other speculations to which God’s Word would not be closed. That should not be because we feel constrained by some kind of rule, but because we don’t want to deny, even implicitly in a story, some truth that God has shown to us, because we love Him. Moreover, we may not (or should not) see the point in such a deviation.

One of the best examples of this comes from C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra, in which a former scientist, who has fallen into Satanic mysticism, is seemingly possessed by the Devil and comes to an Eden-like planet to tempt the “Eve” equivalent of that world:

“But you remember we are not to live on the Fixed Land.”

“No, but He has never forbidden you to think about it. Might not that be one of the reasons why you are forbidden to do it—so that you may have a Might Be to think about, to make Story about as we call it?”

In her innocent, the Lady is confused by the Un-Man’s encouragement to “make [a] Story” about something she knows her Creator, Maleldil, would forbid in real life. Finally the Lady, with help from the story’s hero Dr. Ransom, stumbles upon a profound line of reasoning against the Un-Man (which soon forces him to change strategies):

[. . .] “It is not from the making a story that I shrink back, O Stranger,” she answered, “but from this one story that you have put into my head. I can make myself stories about my children or the King [her husband]. I can make it that the fish fly and the land beasts swim. But if I try to make the story about living on the Fixed Island I do not know how to make it about Maleldil. For if I make it that He has changed His command, that will not go. And if I make it that we are living there against His command, that is like making the sky all black and the water so that we cannot drink it and the air so that we cannot breathe it. But also, I do not see what is the pleasure of trying to make these things.” (Boldface emphases added)

A couple of years ago I explored more of this in C.S. Lewis and the forbidden fruits of fiction (that’s where I copied these quotes, when I copied them there from the book).

Other negative examples, of course, include the infamous The Shack, which “speculates” far outside Biblical parameters — as if its author does not care about “Maleldil” and feels fine with writing a story about “living on the fixed land,” contrary to “Maleldil’s” revealed will, as long as the higher goal of Fighting Legalism is held.

(By the way, despite my criticism I am trying to get hold of a copy of The Shack for research into pop-evangelical miscolorings of God, so if anyone has a copy he/she would like to get rid of, do let me know; perhaps we can arrange something!)

Sally Apokedak
Guest

Thought provoking post. I think you’re on to something Kaci. We can learn by negative example as well as by positive example.

What Pullman did was call the church and God evil and call Satan good. But that’s not what I think you mean, Kaci. I think you mean we can paint a world run by by petty Greek gods (or something of the sort) and see how we like that place, and that might make us less apt to call the real, loving God of the Bible an ogre when he exercises justice. Am I understanding you?

Stephen, I have a copy of The Shack but mine is all underlined and has notes in the margins, (mostly, “ugh” ) and I don’t think I can part with it. 🙂

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Stephen, I have a copy of The Shack but mine is all underlined and has notes in the margins, (mostly, “ugh” ) and I don’t think I can part with it.

While I’d love to see that, mostly for the tragicomic impact, I completely understand!

Morgan Busse
Member

I will agree with the whole lesser gods idea. I read the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (yes, I did like it, the humor is great), but I also went away grateful that our God doesn’t go around having children, then going back to Mt Olympus while the children left behind try to figure out their lives.

What I thought you meant was to write a story about what is decidedly untrue about God, even if its to explore that possibility. So many people are reading books without discernment (Christians included), why would we want to put more false stuff out there for them to stumble through? Unless you also show the truth (reveal the impostor behind the curtain to use the Wizard of Oz illustration). Then I could understand writing such a book.

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Galadriel
Guest

I like that quote from Perelandra(one of my favorite books). To build on it–authors could, for example, make Story about a world with multiple seniant races, or spaceships, or telepathy–because God could have done that. But (to continue with the Lewis imagery) one cannot make a story where “the Sun rose one day and were a black sun, or you drank water and it were dry water….Aslan is not Aslan.” One might, like the Dwarves in Last Battle, believe in dry water and black sun, but it could not be.